Risky Business: The future of agriculture

Posted December 10, 2012 by Sophia Murphy   

Ferry crossing the Bani river to reach the market. Image: Oxfam

Hard on the heels of Oxfam’s Food and Gender Discussion Blog, in which ten experts provided ten views over ten days intended to reframe food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency comes another Oxfam online forum for debate on agriculture called "The Future of Agriculture."

The series will explore four issues:

  1. Farmers’ knowledge as the driver of innovation and investment;
  2. Women’s land ownership;
  3. Farming’s dependence on fossil fuels; and
  4. Effective risk management systems.

As with the series on food and gender, the discussion aims to generate bold proposals, in this case to meet increasing world demand for food in a way that eradicates hunger and preserves the environment.

I had the privilege to contribute to the debate, and my essay (one of twenty or so to be featured over the next two weeks) has been posted as one of two to kick off the discussion. Below are some excerpts from my contribution—I do hope you will find time to read and respond as the debate unfolds.

Agriculture is a risky business. At the mercy of inclement weather and pests, a frequent casualty of war, and subject to its own particular demand constraints and market failures, agriculture merits a branch of economics all to itself. The risks are not just economic: they also link to biological diversity and natural resource management, to culture and social relationships.

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The common denominator

Posted December 6, 2012 by Jim Harkness   

IATP President Jim Harkness presented the following address to the attendees of the 11th Hour Project's grantee gathering on October 11, 2012. See a video of his remarks below.

Good morning.

The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”

Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”

Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.

This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.

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Soil for food, not for carbon

Posted December 6, 2012

Used under creative commons license from the tαttσσed tentαcle.

To its most dedicated proponents at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, “climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. To the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and several agriculture-focused NGOs, it provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: Carbon is supposed to be sequestered in soil based on a set of practices that a project manager puts in place and farmers implement, and that sequestration is measured and recorded as carbon credits. The carbon credits are then supposed to be traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon are also supposed to build resilience, so farms can adapt to the changing weather they are starting to face.

At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: climate-smart agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in very different local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, it is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.

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Climate finance debated while climate change rages

Posted December 3, 2012 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Used under creative commons license from theverb.org.

Asking for climate finance negotiations to deliver at CoP 18 in Doha, Qatar. 

One of the many fierce debates at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (CoP), which opened this year on November 26 in Doha, Qatar is about climate finance. How should the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the adaptation to climate change’s effects, both slow-onset, such as drought, and suddenly catastrophic, such as Hurricane Sandy, be most effectively financed?

According German Watch’s latest Global Climate Risk Index, “More than 530,000 people died as a direct consequence of almost 15,000 extreme weather events, and losses of more than USD 2.5 trillion (in Purchasing Power Parity) occurred from 1992 [the first year of the UNFCCC negotiations] to 2011 globally.” To that toll, among other extreme weather events, can be added Sandy’s cost of at least 121 lives and $71 billion in repairs, most of which will be paid for by the U.S. federal government.

Among the many contentious issues to be debated at the CoP, perhaps none is less likely to be resolved than the issue of how to pay to adapt to climate change and to reduce GHGs. This debate goes beyond the question of whether payment should come from the industrialized countries that bear the historical responsibility for the majority of GHG production, or whether payment also should come from those developing countries that will, in the words of U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing, bear “future responsibility” as major GHG emitters. The question is not even how much of a share each should pay, but whether any significant funds will be committed at all.

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What’s at stake for agriculture in COP 18?

Posted November 21, 2012 by Shefali Sharma   

The biggest threat for agriculture at the 18th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC is the certain likelihood (oxymoron intended) of “non-decisions” for setting ambitious emissions reduction targets for the post-2012 period, when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires. Bill McKibben’s widely circulated article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math tells us in starkly clear terms what we need to do to set things right:

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

McKibben lays out in simple terms what we policy advocates and scientists have failed to do thus far: convince the average citizen in the industrialized world why immediate, ambitious and drastic cuts in our fossil fuel use is necessary to prevent the deadliest impacts of global warming, not just for future generations, but for this generation. Yet, government representatives will be going to the climate talks prepared to take years to cobble together a legally binding deal to cut emissions worth the paper they sign. 

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Chiko the Cat says support IATP to the max

Posted November 14, 2012 by Jim Harkness   

Dear Friends,

Give to the Max Day in Minnesota is a special day to support your favorite Minnesota nonprofits.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has long prided itself as being on the cutting edge of identifying and addressing global issues that affect our daily lives. We analyze complex challenges, bring people together, and work to shift power in our quest for a more democratic, sustainable and just world.

Our ever-vigilant policy analysts report back that there is but one unifying forum recognized around the world for sharing ideas and vision: the cat video.

I invite you to enjoy IATP’s latest production, Chiko, Le Chat Politique.

Please share this important message with your friends. And give now at www.iatp.org/gtmd12.

Thanks to a generous friend of Chiko the cat, all gifts today will be matched dollar for dollar up to $8,000.

Thank you for participating in Give to the Max. Your support makes our work possible. To learn more, go to www.iatp.org/gtmd12.

Sincerely,

Jim Harkness, President

The fine print: No cats were harmed in the filming of this video, unless you count licking a McDonald’s cheeseburger. With special thanks to Henri, Le Chat Noir.

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The CFS comes of age

Posted October 26, 2012 by Sophia Murphy   

Photo credit: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti.

I came away from the 39th session of UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) last Saturday tired but hopeful. In a world where many are skeptical of global institutions' ability to solve the world’s most challenging problems—not least of which, climate change—the CFS offers a new approach to global governance, and is getting results. It’s a rare place in the multilateral system where transparency and participation have stretched to allowing civil society a place at the negotiating table. The processes are not perfect, and as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter’s summary reminds us, there is still a need for a “strong, innovative monitoring and accountability mechanism” to give the organization teeth. Nonetheless, it’s getting things done, and keeping a surprising diversity of people happy while doing it.

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A global step forward on climate and agriculture

Posted October 25, 2012 by Shefali Sharma   

Photo © FAO/Alessandra Benedetti.

Last week in Rome, the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) agreed on key principles on how governments must address the massive food security challenge that climate change brings. The big news: Governments at the CFS recognized that policies addressing climate change must also support the Right to Food—an important step forward that if taken seriously by governments could result in a major shift in the way agriculture and land use are considered at the global climate talks.

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California makes history on the right to water

Posted October 1, 2012 by Shiney Varghese   

Used under creative commons license from Happy Sleepy.

On Wednesday, September 26 Governor Jerry Brown of California signed the bill AB 685, into law, establishing the policy that every person in California has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water. This is a historic moment in the U.S. debate over the right to water.

The U.S. federal government has not recognized water as a human right, but this policy initiative at the state level could become a turning point as far as water policy and politics goes. It is indeed a step in the right direction, given the concerns about “right to water” violations in California which were raised by the U.N. Special Rapporteur Catalina de Albuquerque following her visit to the United States in 2010.

The bill was authored by assembly member Mike Eng (D-Alhambra) and was co-sponsored by Safe Water Alliance, a coalition which includes many of our allies, and has been advocating for right to water in California for several years. The reach of the bill is extensive, and would help address some of the issues raised in the U.N. report, which identified specific cases where people were denied access to water or had to spend a large percentage of their income to secure water for domestic use.

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Corn and climate: The story from Kenya

Posted September 13, 2012

Corn stocks harvested for livestock feed.

The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.

Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.

Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.

Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer. 

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